A Red Hot Yiddishe Mamma


Let’s talk about one of the original red hot mammas – Miss Sophie Tucker (1884-1966). If I had a spangly frock & feather fascinator, I’d sit down at the piano and do one of her numbers for you.

One of my mother’s favourite songs was My Yiddishe Momme and I realise now that it was Sophie singing it. Mother knew not a schmidish of Yiddish and if her Presbyterian soul had known of Miss Tucker’s saucy vaudeville background, she’d maybe have reconsidered. But that’s where I first heard Sophie Tucker.

Now I have a few 78rpm records of the lady. They’re perfect for mechanical sound – on shellac, it’s like you’re sitting at the nearest table to the bar and Sophie’s perched up there on the mahogany, belting it out.

Her signature number was ‘Some Of These Days’ and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this 1911 cylinder recording on an original phonograph. What I have is the 1926 version on shellac with Ted Lewis. It’s considerably smoother than the original and I admit I prefer the rawness of the 1911 recording. After all, raw and punchy was what Sophie did best.

The song ‘Oh, You Have No Idea’ is wonderfully funny but naughty – how about that sexy growled ‘Oh’ at the end of each verse?

He’s got that whatsy whatsy what/What people can’t name/And say that whatsy, whatsy what/Would make the wildest woman tame./Hot as fire all the girls agree/Does he spark when he’s out with me/Oh you have no idea.

But it’s Yiddishe Momme that I play again and again.  Side one is in English and Sophie wrings every ounce of emotion from it.  On the other side, the band plays the song and Sophie speaks the words – in Yiddish.  Outstanding.

Listen to both sides here by clicking the arrows.


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Scots Leid

Yin day, ah goat distracted frae writin aboot thon English alphabet an thocht insteed o the Scots leid. Ah scoored mah memory fir a the Scots words ah kid think o an foon thit some letters in particular jumped oot. Sae here’s some letters fir ye. Forbye, there micht be mair, bit Sesame Street it’s no….

Click the arrow below to hear this text spoken.

a wally close

Thon wiz a richt besom, wiz she no?
Oh ya beezer, aye.
If ah hud a bawbee fir every time she wanted tae blether,
ah’d be rollin.
Mind, wi that man wha kid blame her?
Blootered a’ nichts o the week an
boakin in oor braw wally close.
Ah ca’ it disgustin, sae ah dae.
Aye richt enough – the ither day he near ran doon
ma pussy bawdrons.

Click the arrow below to hear this text spoken.


skinnymalinkylanglegs they cried him
stood there in his semmit
puir bugger hid a stookie oan wan shank
where he’d skited oan the wet stairs
he’d been awfy skeerie aboot
stravaigin ever since
Senga said his room wiz
sae covered in stoor
it fair scunnered her


Click the arrow below to hear this text spoken.

ghosties and ghoulies

Halloween wiz aye a dreich kinnae nicht
an we’d like as no end up
like drookit rats
bit the ghosties an ghoulies couldnae wait
sae oot we went
guisin roon the neebors
Dod oan the second landin
cam oot wi his galluses
hingin roon his waist
n gied us a penny
Mr McFarlane wiz
jist back frae his allotment
tackety bits a covered in glaur
ah fell oan mah dowp
oan the stairs, girned a wee bit
then dichted mahsel doon
an daundered oan


Click the arrow below to hear this text spoken.

If ye want to ken mair aboot these words, I’d commend tae ye the Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Alphabet, Gallimaufry, Stories

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Thinking Pongo Thoughts

pongo thoughts

This is Pongo. He’s known as An Ugly in pottery terms. I named him Pongo when I was a child and for much of my life, he was a doorstop. He went with us to a succession of houses and one of the signs of home for me was Pongo by the front door. When my parents died, I knew I had to have Pongo come live with me. He is honourably retired from his doorkeeping duties in deference to his age and sits on my windowsill, his droopy eyelids gazing benignly at me. The green of his bow is a little faded but that makes not a jot of difference to me. Pongo is home. He endures.
Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Buddy Bolden Blues

Dallas Blues on JOCO label

Back in the early days of the danceband, ad hoc bands with some weird and wonderful names were the norm.

The Original Memphis Five, for example, recorded under such names as Jazzbo’s Carolina Serenaders, Bailey’s Lucky Seven and The Cotton Pickers, despite none of their members having anything to do with the South. The bandleader Johnny Dodds was known for putting together a great group of musicians.

Here’s an example of a band called Blues in Dixieland, playing ‘Buddy Bolden Blues’, a song which began life as ‘Funky-Butt’ by the inspirational cornetist Buddy Bolden. This recording (1949?) is from the compilation Jazz Heritage – Volume IV and the label was a small outfit called JOCO, based in Northfield, Minnesota.

The number features Doc Evans on cornet; Al Jenkins on trombone; Art Lyons on clarinet; Mel Grant on piano; Micky Stienke on drums; and Biddy Bastian on bass. It’s possible that Jelly Roll Morton was also playing – information in the catalogues is often contradictory.

❦ To listen, click the audio player below. ❦

Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Cerebral Branch Lines


The inner life, the one racketing around inside the brain, has a lot in common with the railway. Maps, connections, cows blocking the line. Welcome to the 10.39 for your Final Destination, change at Crewe for Purgatory & All Stations West. Here though there are no deadlines, just neuron engines pulling uphill to the summit.

A map of Inner Life would be more Gorgon knot than the cool geometry of the Underground.  In distant corners, trees have grown up to obscure thinking and blur memory.  More Wild Wood than Kensington Gardens.
Stray imaginings, like bemused but excited children, can be lost in the folds of the cerebral cortex for days. Eventually they will surface on the shiny lines of the frontal lobes, a little frayed around the edges but glad to see daylight.  Sub-branch lines wiggle along unproductively – the lists you thought you made last week, the anguish about world events since resolved, your magnum opus that never got past page 32.  You need the culling power of a Dr Beeching for those.

A kind of benign anarchy rules, including how Time works. Essentially, it’s a law only unto itself.  Not unlike the days when each railway company kept its own time and there was no guarantee that your connection at 3.34 would not be departing from Platform 2 as you alighted on Platform 1 (across the bridge).

There are some rather snazzy branch lines (immaculate destination boards, station name picked out in scarlet geraniums) which rigorous housekeeping keeps up to the mark.  No random ponderings, no political opinions, and definitely no sentimental twaddle about the boy you kissed only once in 1970 are allowed here.  Reach destination – on time – cleanly and efficiently – that’s the ticket.

Elsewhere, time is an irrelevance.  No matter how many pressing thoughts march impatiently back and forth across the concourse, somewhere it’s always a spring morning in 1958 where the paintwork’s a little rusty and the wheels are only just turning.

Putting the brain into neutral – meditating – is really a lot like leaving Liverpool Street at rush hour and arriving,  mid-morning, on a hill station in Pallamcottah where freshly picked tea leaves are waiting to be drunk in a china teapot on a wide verandah. Aah, that’s better.


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Footie 1898 Style

Boys football team 1890s

Sports team photos are a mostly unchanging fixture. Somewhere in Lanarkshire in the 1890s then, a boys’ football team are assembled to face the camera. My grandfather, John (Jack) Somerville, is the boy seated on the front row at the far right, aged around 10. The kit they’re wearing seems to comprise a striped jumper, knickerbockers and big boots – imagine today’s teams wearing that. But how could they afford the kit? These are boys from poor families – Jack’s mother Betsy was managing alone with three young boys. Perhaps the school supplied it? There are only 10 boys, one short of a team – I wonder if somebody didn’t turn up on the day they were due to have their photo taken?

Family History

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Black Afrontit

Scots words

Mah mither
wiz a’ fir the Scots language
an’ keepin’ it alive -
bit she didnae want me
tae hae slovenly speech

thon distinctions
were hard to grasp
scunnered wiz fine
but onythin’ wi’ a glo’ttal
dreich wiz deid noble
bit ahm awa hame
wiz deid common
sae ah hid twa voices -
yin fir hame
and yin fir mah pals

getting oan in life
wiz whit it wiz aboot
the auld raw
Scots language
wiz deemed
that worst o things
Workin Class

sae a’ mah life
ah’ve been the English
losin’ mah accent
thae Scots words
but noo ah’ve a hankerin’
tae yase them
even tho’ it’s gey late on

tae be truthful
ah’m cummin
frae decades o
the very tongue
wi which I wis born
and ah dinnae ken
whither ahm ower
Anglified noo

ah ken mah mither
wid be black afrontit
tae read this,
bit mah hairt -
the Scots hairt o me -
wid like tae try

❦ To listen to me reading this poem, click the audio player below. ❦


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